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Do neuroscience myths harm education?

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Research suggests they don’t matter that much, one way or the other.

We are sometimes told that teachers could help their students learn better if they knew more of the relevant neuroscience. One problem is that much of the “relevant neuroscience” is myths, myths that sell books on neuroscience to a lay audience.

But does it matter if teachers learn and believe these myths? Apparently not.

From recent research, as reported by the editor of a psychology journal:

Educational neuromyths include the idea that we learn more effectively when taught via our preferred “learning style”, such as auditory or visual or kinesthetic … the claim that we use only 10 per cent of our brains; and the idea we can be categorised into left-brain and right-brain learners. Belief in such myths is rife among teachers around the world, according to several surveys published over the last ten years. But does this matter? Are the myths actually harmful to teaching? The researchers who conducted the surveys believe so… But now this view has been challenged by a team at the University of Melbourne, led by Jared Horvath, who have pointed out that this is merely an assumption: “Put simply,” they write in their new paper in Frontiers in Psychology, “there is no evidence to suggest neuromyths have any impact whatsoever on teacher efficacy or practice”.

The open access paper tells us:

As has been frequently noted that there is a real risk of neuroscience being misapplied in educational contexts (Bruer, 1997, 2016; Horvath and Donoghue, 2016; Horvath et al., 2016). However, in combating this occurrence, it is imperative researchers do not simply create a different mythology equally devoid of evidence. It is one thing to demonstrate that acceptance of neuromyths is high amongst teachers across all levels, but it is a different notion to suggest that these myths in any way impact (negatively or positively) upon teaching and learning. When this is combined with the evidence that the currently utilized neuromyths questionnaire may not be valid, it is clear that all studies to date (including this paper) exploring neuromyth levels within education must not be interpreted as correlating brain knowledge and teacher practice. It may, indeed, someday be demonstrated that a better understanding of how the brain works may help teachers become more effective; but this evidence remains chimerical and we must avoid substituting it with unfounded inference. Jared Cooney Horvath*, Gregory M. Donoghue, Alex J. Horton, Jason M. Lodge and John A. C. Hattie, “On the Irrelevance of Neuromyths to Teacher Effectiveness: Comparing Neuro-Literacy Levels Amongst Award-Winning and Non-award Winning Teachers” at Frontiers in Psychology Front. Psychol., 11 September 2018 | https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01666

Christian Jarrett

As the editor of BPS Research Digest assesses the matter:

These new findings appear to argue against the idea that belief in neuromyths is harmful to teaching, but it’s important to recognise – and Horvath and his colleagues admit this – that the new survey does not represent a direct test of this question, and there could be many explanations for the results. For instance, and as the researchers speculate, it’s quite possible that the judges allocating teaching awards themselves believe in neuromyths, such as learning styles, and perhaps they even deliberately rewarded teachers who had incorporated such myths into their teaching. Christian Jarrett, “Are educational neuromyths actually harmful? Award-winning teachers believe in nearly as many of them as trainees” at The British Psychology Society Research Digest

In short, Jarrett thinks, educational neuromyths are nonsense but not harmful nonsense. But he overlooks something: If teachers are rewarded for compliance with nonsense, what are they not rewarded for? While we cannot directly assess the difference that makes, it is a gap whose existence we must acknowledge.

A 2011 article on the qualities of the best teachers listed as the top three:

1) Passion for teaching. …
2) Love of kids. …
3) Love of their subject. … Valerie Strauss, “The 123 qualities great teachers share,” at The Washington Post

That sounds pretty standard. The listed items are traits, not ideas. They would not require a teacher to subscribe to any myths. Or myths about myths or myths about myths about…

Because of its close connection to our sense of ourselves, neuroscience attracts a good many myths. They affect adults too, including well-educated and expert adults, as Jarrett noted in 2017, because they so widely believed:

And yet, all three groups still displayed high levels of brain myth endorsement, especially for what Macdonald and her colleagues identify as the classic brain myths, including:

Learning styles myth (endorsed by 93 per cent of the public, 76 per cent of teachers, and 78 per cent of those with neuroscience education)
A common sign of dyslexia is seeing letters backwards (endorsed by 76 per cent of the public, 59 per cent of teachers, and 50 per cent of those with neuroscience education)

Listening to classical music increases children’s reasoning ability (endorsed by 59 per cent of the public, 55 per cent of teachers, and 43 per cent of the neuroscience group) [more on music-related neuromyths] … Christian Jarrett, “Oh dear, even people with neuroscience training believe an awful lot of brain myths” at The British Psychology Society Research Digest

But do they do harm? Suppose a friend tells us that she read a book about how classical music could improve her reasoning ability and that it did, in fact, improve her reasoning ability?

She is probably right.

After all, as she says, she bought the book, read it, and spent many hours listening to classical music. In short, she was highly motivated to improve her reasoning ability, which likely means she will make at least some progress—relative to her cube mate who buys books featuring age-old conspiracy theories and spends hours listening to the theorists’ podcasts.

It’s not a myth that choice and motivation matter. The myth is rather that we can somehow generalize those conditions, mass produce them, package them, and sell them. But why did we ever believe that anyway?

See also: Yes, you can upload your brain Fine print: They might have to kill you first

and

See also: Attend your own funeral! It’s easy if you upload your consciousness to the cloud, says futurist. Ummm…